Three years ago today, my dad passed away four days after suffering from a heart attack that rendered him lifeless in every way except for the convulsive breathing he was doing via a respirator that was keeping him going. It was a horrible four days, probably among the worst ones I've ever spent, and in the end I and the rest of the members of my family came to realize just how big of a presence this otherwise meager man had been in our lives.
I want to share a story that I first wanted to tell a few weeks ago after my mom and I had gone to my cousin's wedding up in Albany. It's really a story about my mom, but it has to do a lot with dad, too:
Now I'm not sure about the rest of you, but all my life I never really saw my parents as real people. I could never imagine them being my age and going through the same experiences and emotions that I have in my life. I think it's probably a common thing, but I still harbor those feelings sometimes, especially when it comes to my mother.
Growing up, mom was always mom, this sort of caricature of a person who, to me, only held one role in life, that of a mother. But in reality she was always a real person, like me, running through the gamut of life experiences, choices and regrets. Though I know this to be true, I guess that even now I take that for granted, as I realized on the day of the wedding.
You see, had my dad been alive, it would have been him who accompanied her to the wedding, but since I'm the eldest and one whom my mom could usually rely on, I was asked to take her to the big show. I was reluctant to go, but I went for her, and I'm glad I did.
Mom and dad never really had the best of marriages. As it was back in those days, they got married probably too young, had six kids and struggled financially to keep us all clothed and fed. These issues led to difficulties between them, my dad being the frustrated grouch who always seemed to resent his lot in life. He often took his frustrations out on us kids, and it was always mom who defended us as best she could, but that was then.
Time has a way of mellowing things out, and once my dad became ill in his early forties, he began to become less of a grump and way more docile. That's not to say that there still weren't issues between he and mom, but they were different. We were mostly grown up and though we still gave them worry, it was a different kind of worry by then. Besides, mom was always the sort of person to cherish her friends and she always kept herself busy, too busy to maintain any sort of real issues with dad, and in the last few years of his life, I think they both were just settled in to their lives together out of the constancy they had shared for well over 40 years.
Since dad passed away, we've all had our moments. The suffering he'd gone through for so many years and the way his life ended put things all into perspective for us, and I can say with certainty that we all miss him dearly despite the way things used to be. Probably no one misses him more than mom, though, who has never really talked about it or showed it much...until the night of the wedding.
It all happened simply enough. During the lull between dinner and dancing, I had gone outside for a cigarette. While I was outside, I gave my friend Rich a call and we were still talking as I reentered the hotel where the wedding was being held. I sat myself on a couch just outside the banquet room, still talking to Rich, when all of a sudden I saw mom come running out the door, crying. I quickly hung up the phone and ran right over.
"What's the matter mom?' I asked.
Through her sobs, she told me that she'd been sitting there chatting with some of my cousins who were at the table and they started playing after-dinner music. The first song they played was "I Can't Help Falling in Love with You," by Elvis Presley.
"They all got up to dance and I was just sitting there by myself," she quivered through her sobs. "I miss daddy."
It was the first time in almost three years I'd heard her say that with such meaning. Elvis was one of their favorites and I'm sure the song brought up plenty of memories for her. Suddenly for me, I saw just how much dad's absence has affected mom, something I'd been taking for granted all of this time. Sure, I've dealt with the loss of my partner of 20 years, but at least Joe is still around. Losing someone for good is way different, especially after almost 50 years together.
I pulled out a tissue to wipe away her tears and we went back into the room for a dance or two of our own. Unfortunately, the slow stuff had ended and mom had to boogey along with me to some faster stuff, which she could only handle for so long. In the end, I think she had a good time.
I'm happy that I went with her to the wedding. It was the very least I could do for my mom, a very real person with some very real hurt in her life.
Dad, I miss you dearly, and I know mom does, too!
And mom, I love you very much!